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Bodie - where the West was Wildest

The spirit of the "Wild West" has been one of the defining themes of American culture - literature, film and art - for the last 150 years. But the great age of the Wild West was actually rather short. It began around 1850, with the opening up of the American west, but by 1900 it was over. Towns appeared one year, and disappeared a few years later. One of the finest examples is the California "ghost town" of Bodie, which was once said to be the wildest town in the Wild West.

Bodie ghost town in California Once this was one of the wildest places in the Wild West.
            Today the second biggest city in California is San Fran­cisco. Once it was Bodie.
    "Bodie?", you say. "Where's that?"  
    Good question. But in 1880 in America, reactions would proba­bly have been very different. Then, Bodie, with its population of over 10,000, was one of the most infamous places in the whole U.S.A., reputed as the worst, most violent and most law­less town in the Wild West.  Many historians have quoted a let­ter from a young girl whose parents de­cided to go and live and work in Bodie; even this 12-year old knew of Bodie well by reputa­tion, and in her diary she wrote: "Goodbye God! I'm go­ing to Bodie". Bodie was "hell on earth".
    In 1859, a gold prospector named William Body (pronounced like "roadie") discovered gold-bear­ing rock in a deso­late part of the California desert. Claim­ing the stake in his name, he set up a base cabin there with two friends.
   Since it was the start of win­ter, Body and one of his compan­ions then went off to buy stores from the nearest shop..... about a hundred miles away. By the time they started back how­ever, the temperature and the winter snows had be­gun to fall; and as the snow got deeper and deeper, the journey got harder and harder. Though the men were tough  and knew how to survive under most circum­stances, they had not reck­oned with the ter­rible cold in the high California desert, sit­uated at an altitude of over 2,500 me­tres. A few hundred metres from their cabin, Body collapsed. His friend strug­gled on to get help, but by the time it came, the snow had cov­ered up his tracks completely. William Body's body was not found until the following spring.
    Thus Body never extracted a sin­gle ounce of gold from his claim; but since it was his claim, the mining camp, then town, that grew up on the spot got named after him.
   According to legend, the town's name changed from Body to Bodie be­cause a sign-writer could not spell cor­rectly. In actual fact, the change was de­liberate, the townspeople did not want the name to be mis-pro­nounced. "Body" (rhyming with "shoddy") and implying a dead corpse, sounded rather macabre!
    At first the town grew slowly, as there was more gold to be found in some other towns in the region, than near Bodie; be­sides, Bodie was such a  desolate spot! It was not until some very rich veins of gold were discovered in 1876 that the Bodie gold rush really be­gan.
    Like most gold rush towns, Bodie grew very fast, then shrank again almost as fast, as the gold ran out. Maximum size was reached in 1880, when the town boasted 65 saloon bars and its own daily news­paper, in which its violence and law­lessness were reported in fine detail. On 5th September 1880, for ex­ample, the Bodie Stan­dard re­ported three shootings, plus two hold-ups of stage coaches in one day!
   By 1885, the town's popula­tion had dropped to a couple of thousand, many of the miners having gone off to seek better for­tunes elsewhere; many of the town's wooden buildings had been burnt down. Fire, indeed, was a perma­nent risk in Bodie's dry cli­mate, and the town was ac­tually destroyed several times in its his­tory, the last time in 1932.
    It survived until then as a small town, providing services to the lo­cal area;  but the 1932 fire signed the town's death warrant. Many of the fa­cilities were de­stroyed, as were the homes of many of the surviving resi­dents. After the fire, there was no rea­son for people to go on living in Bodie.
     The man who did most for Bodie was Jim Cain, who opened the town's first bank in 1880. He was also one of the most successful of Bodie's miners, and as the town declined, he bought most of the buildings that no-one else wanted — in­cluding the principal mine.
    After Bodie was abandoned by its last inhabitants during the Depression of the 1930's, Cain saved the town from total de­struction. A watchman was installed at the mine, and his job was to make sure that no-one came and dis­mantled the re­maining wooden buildings (as happened
to so many other ghost towns).
     As a result, the 150 buildings in Bodie that survived the fire have re­mained standing, as a real ghost town, until this day.
    Today, the remains of the most lawless town in the West stand exposed to the hot summer sun and the cold win­ter frosts, as a memorial to one of the most turbu­lent ages in American his­tory. Dur­ing the short summer season, a few adventur­ous tourists drive along the un­made roads, to walk for them­selves through the now-quiet streets of this once-active town; but most of the year, the streets are quite empty, and the only noise is the whistling of the cold dry wind as it blows round the corners of deserted build­ings
 And in the old cemetery, just out­side town, the bodies of William Body and oth­ers who perished in this desolate spot now lie in peace.

WORDS

diary: personal journal - bearing: carrying - stake: to reserve ter­ritory - stores: nec­essary things for the winter - reckon with: take account of - struggle: fight -  tracks: marks in the snow - ounce: a few grams - claim: reserve - according to: in the words of - shoddy: of poor quality - spot: place - shrink: get smaller - boast: be proud of - stage coach: passenger coach - seek: look for - provide: ensure, give, supply -  death warrant: death order - dismantle: take to pieces - perish: die
 
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STUDENTS' WORKSHEET

Bodie - Where the West was Wildest

Say whether the following statements are true or false.
1.    Once its population reached about 10,000, Bodie never got any larger.
2.    The Bodie gold rush began with William Body's claim.
3.    By 1885, not much gold could be found.
4.    On September 5th 1880, the stage coach was held up twice, and three people were killed.
5.    Jim Cain died before he had time to celebrate his fiftieth birthday.
6.    The watchman's job, created before the Great Depression, was to make sure that no-one stole the remaining gold from the mines.
7.    Today Bodie has about 150 buildings still standing.
8.    William Body died a few hundred yards from his cabin.
9.    Within the space of 12 years, Bodie grew to being a big town, then returned back to its original size.
10.    Today, Bodie is a major tourist attraction.

Creative writing: Usinfg information from this article, and your imagination, write an article for the Bodie Standard of 5th September 1880.



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